As recent history proves, winning is overrated when searching for a coach capable of leading a team to a Super Bowl title.
After the 2006 season, the Pittsburgh Steelers made the slightly surprising head-coach hiring of Mike Tomlin, fresh off a 6-10 campaign in his first year as the Minnesota Vikings' defensive coordinator. By 2008, Tomlin was leading the Steelers to a Super Bowl title and he guided them to another championship berth last season.
In 2005, the San Francisco 49ers wallowed through a 4-12 season. Yet the Green Bay Packers saw enough in 49ers offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy that they made him their head coach. After an NFC championship game appearance in the 2007 season with Brett Favre(notes) at quarterback, McCarthy won a Super Bowl last season with Aaron Rodgers(notes).
Likewise, the '05 Dallas Cowboys went 9-7 and missed the playoffs for the second consecutive year under Bill Parcells. Yet, after that season, the New Orleans Saints entrusted Cowboys offensive coordinator Sean Payton to rebuild the team in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Payton not only did that, he brought home the team's first Super Bowl title in 2009.
Going farther back, six of the seven previous title-winning coaches had parted ways from their previous teams without having reached the Super Bowl (Tom Coughlin with the New York Giants, Tony Dungy with the Indianapolis Colts, Jon Gruden with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and three by Bill Belichick with the New England Patriots). While some might counter that all those coaches had excellent-to-great quarterbacks except Gruden (he won in Tampa Bay with journeyman Brad Johnson(notes)), that's part of the point. Winning a Super Bowl is much more than about whether the coach comes from an immediate winning background.
"I hadn't looked at it in those terms," New York Giants general manager Jerry Reese said. "But it confirms the things we always talk about that there's much more to it."
In that way, don't be surprised to see some interesting names come up on the list of candidates this year when the NFL's firing and hiring season starts. If owners are paying attention, Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski is a prime example of a guy who should be on the radar.
While the Panthers are only 2-6 this season and Chudzinski has been on a staff that made the playoffs only once in the previous four seasons, his work with quarterbacks is impressive. This year, of course, he is helping turn No. 1 overall pick Cam Newton(notes) into a strong candidate for Rookie of the Year.
Some might discount Chudzinski because of Newton's immense skill, forgetting that Newton was hotly debated as the top pick and that he played at three different colleges. Moreover, Newton has succeeded with only a limited time to prepare for the season because of the NFL lockout. Whatever Chudzinski is teaching seems to be sinking in quickly, just as it did in 2007 in Cleveland.
Four years ago, Derek Anderson(notes) became a Pro Bowler during Chudzinski's first year as an offensive coordinator and Anderson's first as a starter. Anderson, a former sixth-round pick who has since bounced around the league and is back with Chudzinski in Carolina as a backup, posted career highs across the board, including 29 touchdown passes that season as the Browns went 10-6 and narrowly missed the playoffs.
Chudzinski did that by, as Anderson put it, being a "great teacher."
"We run a really complex system, but he's able to simplify the reads and progression of things so that you can learn it quickly," Anderson said. "You look at how much he has helped Cam already in learning the system in such a short time. He's one of the most positive coaches I have ever been around. Even when we do something negative, he puts a positive spin on it that really helps us make progress.
"In a limited amount of time, you see what he has done with us this year, being able to move [wide receiver Steve Smith] around and keep everybody on the same page … Guys respect him and listen to him and you can see how he has soaked up so many influences."
In other words, Chudzinski may be the latest example of a prospective head coach teams will examine by looking beyond the wins and losses. While much of the speculation about top candidates has focused on obvious names such as Gruden and Bill Cowher, that may be shortsighted. No coach has ever won a Super Bowl in two places (and 12 have tried).
[Related: Super Bowl success is hard to replicate]
Rather, finding a coach somewhere else – even from a losing team – might be the better option.
With that in mind, here's a list of top candidates along with opinions about their chances:
Winning retreads (Super Bowl winners)
Brian Billick: Like Cowher and Gruden, the former Baltimore Ravens coach is working in television as an analyst for Fox. Like the other two, he very much wants to coach again. There is a strong belief that his perceived arrogance has rubbed people the wrong way.
Bill Cowher: Pittsburgh's former longtime coach has been linked to so many jobs over the years – Miami Dolphins, Panthers, Giants and Penn State, to name a few – that it has become a running gag. Truth is, he has probably been out of it too long.
[Related: Bill Cowher says he won't coach in 2012]
Jon Gruden: His five-year contract extension with ESPN is meaningless if he wants to coach again, which he seemingly wants to do. Gruden, formerly with the Oakland Raiders and Bucs, is a coaching junkie and he needs his fix.
Losing retreads (non-Super Bowl winners)
Herm Edwards: At 57, he's getting to the point that he may only have one shot left. Was never considered a great strategist, but the former New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs coach has always been a good leader.
Jeff Fisher: Some people have started to buy into the contention that the former Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans coach was overrated. Others look at the fact that he was one of the few who could lead a Bud Adams-owned team anywhere. Looks like a strong candidate.
Jim Haslett: After getting New Orleans to the playoffs at one point and initially getting off to a good start as an interim guy with the St. Louis Rams, Haslett bounced all the way to the United Football league before coming back as the defensive coordinator with the Washington Redskins. He has done solid work so far and he has a climber's mentality.
Scott Linehan: The Detroit Lions' offensive coordinator is doing a nice job getting quarterback Matthew Stafford(notes) to improve even though Stafford has been hurt most of his first two seasons. Linehan will have to answer questions about what happened in St. Louis, but offensive coaches get lots of second chances.
Eric Mangini: There are at least three team executives who believe the current NFL analyst will one day become a great coach … if he can just learn to lighten up in even the smallest way. As hard as it seems to believe, some think the former Jets and Browns coach is wound tighter than Jim Mora Jr.
Mike Martz: The Chicago Bears' offensive coordinator and former Rams coach is probably the offensive version of Gregg Williams, a great coach with extraordinary intellect who is perceived as a mad man. If you've ever talked to him, that's not really the case, but that's the viewpoint when people watch him call plays.
Josh McDaniels: It's going to take years for him to escape the stench of the mess he left in Denver, including the selection of Tim Tebow(notes) in the first round in 2010. However, he has an engaging style, a great pedigree and a good résumé. If he can get things going in St. Louis as the Rams' offensive coordinator soon, he'll be back on track.
Jim Mora Jr.: He's young, energetic and looks the part. The only problem is that the former Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks coach tends to wear his emotions on his sleeve too much rather than keeping them up his sleeve.
Mike Mularkey: His stint with the Buffalo Bills didn't last long, but he has redeemed himself with four solid years working with Matt Ryan(notes) in Atlanta as the offensive coordinator. However, it's questionable whether Mularkey even wants to go through the rigors of running the show again.
Gregg Williams: The regression of the New Orleans defense isn't helping him much these days. Worse, Mularkey's predecessor in Buffalo has yet to escape his rep as an arrogant mad scientist hell-bent on leading another Bolshevik Revolution. That's sad because he's a really good coach.
Rob Chudzinski: As noted, his two stints as an offensive coordinator have been brief, but the success has been constant. Between Anderson and Newton, Chudzinski has developed a strong résumé in a brief time.
Russ Grimm: Grimm's light was shining brighter before the Arizona Cardinals and their offensive line began to regress the past two years. Grimm, a Hall of Famer as a player, still commands respect. That might put him in the class of a Mike McCarthy or Mike Tomlin.
Jay Gruden: He has long been in the shadow of his over-the-top brother, but Gruden's impressive work with the Cincinnati Bengals, including turning quarterback Andy Dalton(notes) into a Rookie of the Year candidate, shouldn't be overlooked. In addition, he has far more tact than his brother.
Dirk Koetter: A lot of things are yet to play out in Jacksonville, where Koetter is the offensive coordinator. If the Jaguars don't make a run at a big-time coach should Jack Del Rio be let go, as expected, then Koetter could be the de facto choice. After one year of working with quarterback Blaine Gabbert(notes), there's some logic to that.
Greg Olson: The struggles of Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman(notes) this season haven't helped Olson, but there are still those who believe Olson has the stuff to run a team. Most important, Olson is a guy who has a great understanding of everything that goes into building a team not just for the short-term, but long-term as well.
Brian Schottenheimer: The failure of quarterback Mark Sanchez(notes) to make some strides could be held against the Jets' offensive coordinator, who has already become a popular candidate in the ranks of up-and-comers. Back-to-back AFC championship game appearances have helped solidify his profile.
Kyle Shanahan: Prior to going to work for his dad in Washington, Shanahan was developing a strong résumé with his work in Houston. Many experienced players who have worked with him think Shanahan is a brilliant play-caller with extraordinary timing. Sadly, this season and the 2010 performance in Washington aren't helping his reputation.
Clarence Shelmon: As the assistant under San Diego Chargers coach Norv Turner, Shelmon is probably a year or two removed from becoming a serious candidate. Like Gary Kubiak in Houston when he left Denver, there will be questions about how much he really does, but many consider Shelmon a bright guy with a strong future.
Todd Bowles: The struggles in Miami, where Bowles is the assistant head coach, are reflecting poorly on Bowles. However, many believe he has the presence and perseverance to someday be a great head coach. He carries respect as a former player.
George Edwards: One GM said Edwards would be high on his list of candidates even if Buffalo, where Edwards is running the defense, completely folds in the second half. Edwards is believed to have the temperament and organizational skills to be a great success as a head coach.
Perry Fewell: Between Buffalo and the Giants, Fewell has done some nice work and his name has come up in the past. He's viewed as the top minority candidate by some, although there is a debate growing about that.
Greg Manusky: Manusky did a nice job with the defense in San Francisco and might have received more attention if not for the chaos created by head coach Mike Singletary. Manusky is in San Diego now, patchworking his way through injuries. Some consider him purely a coordinator, not a head coach because, like Rob Ryan, he's a little rough around the edges.
Winston Moss: As a former player and now an assistant head coach in Green Bay, players believe Moss knows his stuff. He doesn't get much credit because Dom Capers is the one who has designed and is calling the defense. However, Moss has interesting potential.
Chuck Pagano: Being a defensive coach or coordinator in Baltimore is pretty much like printing a ticket to the head coach express. Marvin Lewis, Rex Ryan, Mike Nolan, Mike Smith and Del Rio have all used the platform to make the leap to head coach status. Look for Pagano to do the same.
Rob Ryan: It's hard to miss Rex's brother. He's the guy on the Dallas sideline who looks like he's ready to head for a biker bar and drink a 12-pack. Gotta love him. However, as one GM put it this week: "Rob is great, but he still hasn't learned the idea that you actually do have to cut your hair."
Mel Tucker: He was once used by Cleveland as a candidate simply to fulfill the minority coaching requirement before the Browns hired Mangini. Tucker has recovered from that and done a solid job in Jacksonville. The recent Monday night game against Baltimore in which Tucker's defense held the Ravens in check helped raise his profile.
Mike Zimmer: Players simply love the Bengals' coordinator, who has amazing passion for the game. He has helped improve just about every defense he has coached. That said, some view him as having hit his ceiling.
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